MISS DEMEANORS

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

 I have a confession to make. I love school/office supplies. While other women flock to Sephora enraptured by the latest eyeliner from Bobbi Brown, I am pacing up and down the aisles of Staples checking out the latest notebooks and highlighters. I ponder whether my post-its should be lined or not in the same fashion other people decide what kind of car to buy.            What’s with that, you might ask. Indeed, I have asked that same question many times. I connect it to my love of writing. These are the tools of the trade. And for me, the ultimate tool is the fountain pen.            When I attended a Catholic grammar school, the nuns would not let us write with anything but a fountain pen. Ballpoint pens were considered suspect and vulgar.  Blue ink was a must, although secretly I would purchase a bottle of peacock blue ink, which was the color of the Caribbean. I would use it covertly to write notes to my classmates, hoping traces of it would not be visible when I switched to traditional blue.         We practiced the Palmer method daily until the muscles in our forearms pleaded for mercy. Often my clothes became stained with ink because it was more common then to fill your fountain pen from a bottle of ink. Modern day cartridges were regarded with disdain.        Over the years, I moved on to other kinds of pens. In law school, I became partial to the Papermate “Jotter” ballpoint pen. It wrote smoothly and fit nicely into my hand. I protected it zealously, carrying a cheap Bic pen in case anyone wanted to borrow a pen. No one was going to get his or her hands on my Jotter.       Sometimes I missed my fountain pen, but I thought using one would only complicate my busy life as a lawyer. When I discovered the Uniball Gel Impact  Roller with its bold 1mm line, I was in heaven. This baby writes as smooth as jelly sliding over peanut butter. Clients would admire the Uniball while signing documents. I gave a fair number away.       But I still missed the fountain pens from youth. There is something elegant about writing with a fountain pen. It says “I want my words to be worthy of this noble instrument.” A few years ago while attending a writing seminar in Boston, I strolled into a Levenger store (sadly no longer there) during the lunch break. There it was. A fountain pen with my name on it. I bought it, returning to the workshop, poised to write notes with my long lost friend.        The feel of this pen in my hand, the sensation of the ink flowing across the page, is soothing to me. It makes writing as much as a physical act as a cerebral one. While not practical for drafting lengthy manuscripts,  at least not for me, note taking and journaling with my trusty fountain pen bring me great pleasure, I’m almost embarrassed to admit. But for me, it’s about revering an object that connects what’s in my head to the page.Do you connect your passion for something to an object or supplies that make it happen? Is anyone else out there finding more bliss in Staples than Sephora?

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NANOWRIMO DEFEATS THE DEADLY DUO

Fear. I could probably write a thousand blogs about it. I have written a few. This is the newest installment. Call this one, ”The Terror of Trying Something New.”            Perfect.  The need to do something perfectly feeds and fuels fear. Fear and Perfection: The Deadly Duo for a writer.            I have written six entire novels, two of which have been published, I’m grateful to share. I think I have found my voice, but I’m not sure if that hasn’t made me think I am limited in some way in what I write.            First, I am a mystery writer, born from a lifetime of reading and loving mysteries. I enjoy many kinds of mysteries, including traditional, police procedural, domestic suspense, and cozies. I love it when a mystery takes me to a new location or returns me to a beloved one.  Transplant me back into time and I’m  there with the protagonist into challenges of the era.  But I wondered, could I possibly write in one of the unchartered venues or subgenres?  Would the Deadly Duo prevent me from even trying?            Enter NANOWRIMO, the annual November challenge to writers to write a 50,000- word novel during the month of November. I’d tried once before,  but given up when I realized 50,000 words in 30 days does not allow you to be perfect.  For reasons shared only with my therapist and well beyond the limitations of this blog, I need to be perfect.            But the gentle side of living past the age of 60 has shown me I can try anything if I give up on the notion I  must be perfect, so even though November was scheduled to be the month from hell for me, I said, why not?            Since I was already giving myself the option of being humanly imperfect,  the relief I felt was liberating. Hell, if it doesn’t have to be perfect, I could try anything.  I chose a protagonist who was far younger than I am comfortable writing. Her past suggested her story would fit the suspense, if not thriller, subgenre.  The location was urban, not island or small town.  It was exhilarating to dabble in previously unchartered choices that risked imperfection. The more daring I became, the more excited I got, and the less frightened of failure.  After all, it’s only NANOWRIMO, right?            When I realized early on that having cataract surgery on both eyes in the same month might impact my word count, I was tempted to say, I’ll never get the 50,00 word count and wished I could count the number of characters or letters I had written. I was ready to quit.  But my protagonist,  Olivia, screamed at me and said, “What? You’re going to leave us on the page in this mess?”            I started writing plot points and ideas on brightly colored post-its and stuck them on a board so I wouldn’t lose the thoughts that were coming to me so rapidly I was afraid they would be gone if I couldn’t write them on the page. I’d never done this before, although many of my talented writing colleagues use this technique.  Soon the board was nearly filled with fluorescent stickies where I had spilled my brain. I was on fire. And if a particular idea didn’t work, wasn’t perfect enough for my unrealistic self-established standard, I could take it down, crush it in my hand and toss it into the wastebasket.  A revolutionary act for a perfectionist. I had declared war on the Deadly Duo.            Will I finish in time to meet the 50,000-word count by the deadline.? I honestly don’t know. I’m trying, but hey, I’m not perfect. Will I finish this book.  Hell, yes.  I’m on fire and the Deadly Duo won’t  stand in my way, thanks to NANOWRIMO. And guess what. I’m having fun not being perfect.            Does the Deadly Duo affect your writing or reaching other goals?  What is NANOWRIMO teaching you?  

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FINALLY FINDING MY PEOPLE

I thought the search would never end, but in some ways I didn’t even know what I was seeking. I was the poster child in a world where you are told you can be anything you want to be. But how do you know what you want to be, and more importantly, who you want to be?            At the end of my attendance at a traditional Catholic high school, there stood three lines for women. You got into the line for nurses if you were scientifically inclined. If you weren’t, you got into the line next to it, which was for teachers. If you couldn’t make up your mind or weren’t motivated, you were relegated to the third line for secretaries.  It was 1967.            BOOM! The world exploded almost immediately after that. Vietnam. Civil Rights. Peace, Love, and Happiness. And so much more. I had been given a second chance to make choices.            And did I ever make choices. Having gotten in the nurse line first, I quickly realized I wasn’t well equipped for a profession for which I have the most profound respect. I just didn’t belong. I had always wanted to be an advocate, a lawyer. So off to law school I trotted, while I worked as a welfare director in a city during the Regan administration. Talk about not belonging.            The lawyer-gig fit better. I practiced family law, where the human skills I learned as a nurse could be combined with deductive reasoning and advocacy. But I didn’t really identify with my fellow lawyers. I certainly didn’t want to play golf with them and steered clear of bar association memberships.            I discovered I enjoyed mediating conflict better than duking it out in court where families are psychologically dismembered by words spoken by lawyers and then swiftly forgotten. In mediation, I found comfort and support in other professionals who agreed there was a better way to disagree. But many mediators come to the field driven by many diverse motivations. I had yet to feel I had found my community.            While a brief stint as a yoga teacher brought me joy, I still didn’t feel as if I had found “my peeps.”            All the while, my inner writer had been gestating. The lawyer gig had revealed how much I love to tell people’s stories. After all, that’s what I did for my clients. I told judges their stories as persuasively as I could, trying to distinguish them from the myriads of other tragedies poured like lagers of misery.            At first I was afraid to admit I was a writer. But then I joined a writing group where I found others afflicted with the same addiction to words and storytelling. Buoyed by connecting with other writers and sharing  the alternating elation and despondence only writers can appreciate punctuate the love of writing, I began joining writer’s organizations and attending writer’s conferences.             How can I describe the relief and jubilation I felt at finally finding my people? Although the initial encounters with other writers are often awkward and stilted because everyone knows writers are short on social graces, what follows usually are conversations,  laughter, and laments on a level resonating with the “who” I finally have found me to be.  I had discovered where I belonged, who my tribe was, and the pleasure of being with my peeps.             

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THE EYES HAVE IT

 You know that old expression, “The ayes have it,” don’t you? Actually, it could be a pretty controversial expression this week, given the debate about the popular vote versus the vote of the Electoral College. But I’m talking about the eyes, as in you cannot be grateful enough for good vision, particularly if you are a writer.            Recently I’d noticed that I wasn’t seeing so well, even with my pricey Ralph Lauren faux tortoise-shell frames with navy blue sides. I’d pass exits on the highway and began confusing words. I’d see “promise” as “premise.”            A trip to the eye doctor confirmed that my vision had declined and yes, I was a perfect candidate for cataract surgery. Me and five million other baby boomers. Knowing how pricey new glasses are and that they would likely be good for only a year, I signed the consent form and last week I had the left eye done. The second eye will be done two weeks later.            The procedure is only momentarily painful, worse than the humility I felt at becoming Miss Daisy, driven by my husband everywhere for a day or two. I can’t say I enjoyed the feeling of being herded through a procession of appointments with my fellow AARP members, but I kept reminding myself not to be a curmudgeon and that the goal was to see better.            I warned the students in a law class I teach that I would be a movie star last week, wearing over-sized sunglasses after the surgery to class  under the glare of the fluorescent lights. They chuckled politely, but when one student sweetly suggested the class could send their emails in larger fonts, I experienced a combination of appreciation with suppressed indignation.            The after-effects of the surgery on the first eye have been minimal. I told my husband that I thought highway driving at night might actually be more enjoyable for everyone if they could see the same illuminated angel wings I witnessed in the place of headlights. Someone shared the experience of thinking she was perfectly back to normal in one day until she poured wine between the two glasses she had placed on the counter. A little embarrassing, inconvenient, but no big deal.            The real deal about having cataract surgery is this: You get your eyes back. It is amazing what I am seeing even less than one week later out of that lucky left eye that got to go first. The right eye is jealous, struggling to keep up with the print I can see on labels, the definition of objects, and especially in the words I read and write. I had no idea how much I was struggling.            I also didn’t have enough appreciation for the gift of sight. So here’s a toast to the two little orbs sitting above our nose. Eye, eye!            Have any of you learned to love your eyes the hard way? P.S. Please excuse any typos in the blog this week, but after that, cut me no slack.           

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The Conference Circuit 

  • November 13, 2016

I’m at my first New England Crime Bake, the annual mystery conference hosted by New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. The conference offered panels on everything from author branding to writing historical mysteries. Plus pizza and dessert parties, a cocktail party, and dinner. Booksellers’ alley proved irresistible and my TBR pile grew by half a dozen books.Writers’ conferences are new to me. Somehow, I remained unaware of them until I started trying to get my book published. I missed out on so much fun. Meeting readers and writers and agents and editors–one big, supportive community coming together around a shared love of mystery and books.My problem now is deciding which conferences to go to. There are so many and they all look like a blast–Bouchercon, Thrillerfest, Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, DFWCon to name a few. And they’re held in so many fabulous places–Toronto, Hawaii, New Orleans, Dallas, New York City. Plus Europe and probably other continents, too. As much as I’d like to hit them all, time and budget restrain my conference wanderlust. I’d be broken and on the road all the time if attended every one that caught my eye. I’m checking out as many as I can. I hope to become a repeat attendee at some. In all cases, I’m meeting new friends and allies and scoring some great new reads.

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Overwhelmed

  • November 11, 2016

This week’s been a rough one. I’ve got a deadline for edits on the manuscript for book two in the Gethsemane Brown series looming, I’ve had to write blog posts this week, I’m on temporary assignment for work, enrolled in a graduate level course where an entire semester’s worth of assignments are crammed into 28 days. Oh yeah, and I’m making a lightning quick weekend trip to Massachusetts to attend my first New England Crime Bake conference–with edits and homework stuffed in my carry-on. I had grand plans for NaNoWriMo but you know the old saying about mice. Add to all that the fear and anxiety I feel after recent events left me wondering if a significant portion of my fellow Americans declared open season on people who look like me and I’ve been fighting hard all week the urge to curl up in a ball in the back of the closet and cry. Then something happened to remind me good people still exist in this world, people who will offer you support without you even asking for it.My class was making plans for the weekend–lunch, museums, bowling, distillery tours. When I explained I wouldn’t be joining them because I’d be at New England Crime Bake and told them I’d recently published my first novel, they were happy and excited for me. Thirteen people who I didn’t know–never even seen–before we arrived on campus three weeks ago wished me well. They asked questions about the conference and my novel and at out being an author. Some even said they’d buy my book. They showed genuine interest in, and concern for, me. My spirits rose from somewhere around my big toe to the center of my chest. I still wanted to cry but for different reasons. Good reasons.Although I’m still stressed about my workload I no longer feel the world’s turned against me. I’ll finish my edits and my homework, sign up for Camp NaNo in the spring, and enjoy the conference. And when someone shares their news with me I’ll be happy for them and wish them well.

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Boo!

  • November 9, 2016

My research for Murder in G Major extended beyond the distillery. One of my main characters is a ghost so paranormal activity landed at the top of my research list. A lot of my research took the former of binge watching Ghost Adventures on Sling TV (true confession: Zak Bagan is my secret crush) and listening to Derek Jacobi narrate M. R. James’s ghost stories on Audible. Side note: if you’ve never heard James’s ghost stories read aloud you owe yourself a listen. He read the stories aloud to friends at Christmas. They were meant to be heard. Just leave the lights on.Of course, I read about the paranormal, too. I learned a spellbook is called a grimoire, defined by dictionary.com as “a manual of magic or witchcraft” and by Wikipedia as “a textbook of magic, typically including instructions.” I learned ghost orbs come in different colors and the different colors have different meanings. I also learned that Ireland ,  an island covering roughly 30,000 square miles, provides enough supernatural material to keep you busy researching for two lifetimes. Since my novel is set in Ireland, I dove in.One tale I came across is that of the Banshee or wailing woman. Her story gives us the phrase, “screaming like a Banshee.” Some versions portray her as a beautiful woman, some as a hideous hagen, but in all of the tales she lets out a blood-curdling cry that portends death.A lesser known tale is that of the black cat of Killakee. When Killakee House in Dublin underwent renovations in the 1960s a mysterious black cat repeatedly appeared in the house, often in areas he couldn’t possibly have gotten into. He would snarl at workmen and the property owners then vanish. An exorcism got rid of him but an ill-advised séance brought him back.These are only two of Ireland’s countless paranormal tales. I wouldn’t want to encounter either face to face but research let me experience a thrill from a safe distance.

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Research has its benefits

  • November 9, 2016

I enjoy doing research for my novels. Research provides opportunities to travel to new places and experience new things. It lends authenticity and depth to characters, plot, and setting. Beyond that, research sparks new interests. Through research for my novels I discovered things I wanted to learn more about outside the bounds of my novel.Take bourbon, for instance. Bourbon plays a big role in my novel, Murder in G Major. I didn’t know much about whiskey in general or bourbon in particular before writing my manuscript. I  recognized some of the bigger brand names and knew some bourbon was meant to be mixed into cocktails while some was meant to be enjoyed on its own  (and the types are not interchangeable) but that’s about it. Through research I learned “bourbon” is legally codified: it must be distilled in the US (in any state; sorry, Kentucky) from a grain mash containing at least 51% corn in new charred oak barrels at no more than 160 proof. It must be aged in the barrel at least two years to be called straight bourbon and must be bottled at no more than 125 proof. Which equals 62.5% alcohol–enough to get your attention. Bourbon can be bottled as at blend from several barrels or can be bottled from a single barrel. A good percent of each barrel’s contents is lost to evaporation–the angels’s share–and some soaks into the barrel’s wood–the devil’s cut. Such romantic names for lost product. Bourbon distillers can only use a barrel once. But instead of wasting a good barrel they sell them to distillers in Ireland and Scotland. Whiskey and whisky have no restrictions against used barrels (an eco-friendly aspect of distilling). So when you enjoy a dram of Scotch or Irish whiskey, you may be enjoying a hint of the good ol’ USA.Another fun fact I learned while researching? Distilleries give tours. I recently toured the bucolic Holladay Distillery in Weston, Missouri. 160 years old, the former McCormick Distillery  (renamed after original founder, Benjamin Holladay) is back in the business of distilling spirits. The tour wound past gorgeous scenery, warehouses dating from the early 1900s to the 1950s, the original limestone well and, to quote our enthusiastic tour guide, a bad*** still. We learned about each step in the bourbon making process from roasting locally sourced corn to loading 500-pound locally made barrels onto the racks where they’ll spend the next three years waiting for their unaged whiskey to mellow into fine bourbon. I’ve already got my barrel picked out. (Not really. But I did buy a bottle of unaged spirits. Cheers!)

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Ssh, It's a Secret

Blogging is challenging for me. Revealing myself three hundred to five hundred words at a time is not something that comes natural to me. If blogging wasn’t part of the territory of being a modern author (We can’t all be Elena Ferrante.) I probably wouldn’t be doing it. I’m a guarded, private person. I peg way out on the analytical and introverted extremes of any type preference scale you care to administer. I will never be a memoirist. My novels are not confessionals or autobiographies. I create fictional worlds in which I bring order to chaos, unravel puzzles, set wrongs to right, and make sure good triumphs in the end. I don’t get the urge to overshare that seems ubiquitous these days. I’m not the person in line at the grocery store telling the cashier (and everyone else within earshot) about my recent surgery/recent ex/recent fight with a co-worker while the cashier rings up my produce. I have no urge to exorcise my demons or air my laundry on social media. I’d rather post snarky memes and cute animal videos. I recently wrote a paper for a course I’m enrolled in. I received it back with a high mark but with a comment to the effect the instructor wished I had shared more about myself and been less “legalistic” in tone—first person instead of third. My (unspoken) response was I don’t know you, therefore, “me” is none of your business. If you believe in astrology, this is apparently a common stance among Scorpios. But in this modern, hyperconnected, global community we live in privacy is an increasingly rare commodity. Sharing oneself with others is increasingly the norm. So I’ll keep working on the blogging and working on being more open. I’m still going heavy on the animal videos on social media, though.

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Looking for a muse? Maybe you should stop.

A muse, that inspirational goddess of literature, science and the arts found in Greek mythology, is supposed to inspire an artist, writer or musician. But does she? Does anyone wait for the muse to walk into their mind and ignite that spark? I’m not saying that ideas don’t spring to mind fully formed as a random thought during the night, or while walking the dog. Those are the words and ideas that writers rush to put on paper. They may in fact be the kernel of the next great novel or short story. However, rather than putting my faith in the muse, I’m a believer in the creative process. I don’t think that relying on a Greek muse will get me anywhere in the long run. Perhaps it’s because I was trained as an architect, and architecture and writing both rely on a creative process. In architecture you may be designing a house or a library. In writing you are perhaps creating a novel or a short story. A mystery or a memoir. Know this and you’ve started. I’m currently working on a series, so I know the name of my main character, where she lives, who her family is and what motivates her. All I need to do is put her into the current story. In architecture this is the equivalent of picking a site. Now you know the house will face the ocean on a narrow plot of land. You have a start. I think that the most important part of the process is simply beginning. You need the first word on the page; the first line on the page. Once you’ve started, the process continues – this is where it feels like a toss between a miracle and torture. Another layer in the writing unrolls. Perhaps it’s the development of a character, the addition of characters, the development of setting, the addition of details. If you’re writing a mystery, clues are scattered. It’s healthy to look at the exact process other writers use. Do they outline, create detailed backstories for all of their characters, or are they ‘pantsers’ writing by the seat of their pants. But it is also healthy to remember that each person’s process is individual and each person’s mind works in a slightly different way. The most important part of the process, to me, is to keep moving forward. Will you take a left turn on the road to completion, or a right turn? Maybe even a u-turn. You will get there if you keep at it. Keep putting words on a page. Keep reaching for the end, and one day you will arrive.     

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